Sunday, October 27, 2013

Between Scylla and Charybdis: Obamacare Hits The Rocks

Between Scylla and Charybdis: Obamacare Hits The Rocks

There is a wonderful scene in the Bond movie “Die Another Day” where Pierce Brosnan, apparently sleeping in sick bay on a British ship after having been captured and tortured by the North Koreans, codes out.  The buzzer goes off, the medical team scrambles, and two men approach with a defibrillator. Bond restarts his heart, zaps the mere mortals, goes top ship, jumps over the side, swims into the bay, and, soaked, bearded, with matted hair, strides into the Hong Kong Yacht Club.

Ah, to be 007.  The entire sequence from no heartbeat to a groomed Bond about to quaff his favorite vintage takes less than three minutes.

Male competence.  And you don’t have to be a superman. You can see it in one of the “knowing what needs to be done” Viagra ads, where the handsome, but decidedly middle-aged driver of a vintage Camaro that’s overheating on a desert road, stops at a gas station, grabs a bottle of water, takes a few swigs, pours the rest of it into the radiator, and drives off through the dust.  Or the new Robert Redford movie, where he battles the elements at sea alone, creatively, heroically. You don’t have to be a sex symbol, either. Richard Farnsworth shows it with his wits in “The Grey Fox” and later still, as an old man on two canes, in “The Straight Story.”  Men are supposed to be competent.

Would that be the case.  These last few weeks, we have had the unique opportunity to see some of the worst incompetence in government in recent memory (you have to wonder whether Jimmy Carter was paying people off.)  First, we had the idiotic and incredibly costly shutdown, a multi-billion dollar taxpayer subsidy to the ambitions of Ted Cruz and his band of bankrupt brigands.  Then, the absurdly awful rollout of Obamacare, which didn’t have just a few bugs in the system, but a horde reminiscent of the locust in “The Good Earth.” And now, the absurdist Stalinist-era show trials of Obamacare hearings (it’s been up and running for a few weeks, so why not haul in the people who are supposed to be in charge so they can answer outraged questions for the cameras instead of going back to fix things?)

Blame the men.  Of course, Katherine Sibelius is in the crosshairs.  But you have to start with the President.  It’s his baby, with his name on it.  He’s got to have it ready.  Of course, Obama isn’t going to be writing code.  But he should have been insisting, from Day 1, that it be ready on time and with as minimal glitches as are possible when introducing a massive new system.  He had to have known that even if this was the best program ever, the Republicans would dig up (literally, if they had to) someone with tears running down their face, talking about how a two-hour delay in signing up ruined her life and generations to come.  He should have foreseen this, and apparently he didn’t. It’s an enormous failure of leadership, and it has to land on his doorstep.

Then, let’s move to the vendors in charge.  A friend who watched the hearings sent me the following, “And the clowns who testified before Congress earlier this week knew -- to the penny -- how much their contracts were worth, but didn't have a clue (nor did they seem to care) about whether they had actually delivered a working solution.”  You would think that the “clowns” would actually have some pride of authorship, if for no other reason because it could be good for attracting other business.  Think again. “Where’s my check?” seems to be their only priority.

Let's not forget the Republicans.  The massive opposition to Obamacare hasn’t just come from a bunch of grandstanding Washington politicians.  It has also taken place at the state and local level, where ambitious and ideologically motived Republican governors have decided Obamacare is a law that may be ignored because their party didn’t pass it and they don’t (personally) agree with it.  In 21 states, structural barriers have been erected by the GOP to the ACA’s implementation.  In North Dakota, the following was adopted as S. 2309: "The legislative assembly declares that the federal laws known as (PPACA) likely are not authorized by the United States Constitution and may violate its true meaning and intent as given by the founders and ratifiers."  Think about that for a second. Since when did a bunch of state legislators become the Supreme Court?  And just when did nullification regain credibility?

So, there you have it.  A poorly implemented law with inadequate prior planning, incompetent vendors, and the steadfast opposition of a political party who has forgotten their history and even their duty.  The original North Dakota bill (it was deleted in the final law) not only provided that the ACA is "considered to be null in this state" but made it a criminal offense for any federal official to implement the ACA.  Just imagine what would have happened in the Bush Administration if 21 states barred their citizens from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Scylla and Charybdis, in Greek mythology, were two immortal monsters who lived on opposite sides of the Strait of Messina. Scylla was a supernatural creature, with 12 feet and 6 heads on long, snaky necks, each head having a triple row of shark-like teeth, and on her thighs were the heads of ferocious dogs.  She dwelt in a cave, feeding herself on anything unfortunate enough (or foolish enough) that came close. Charybdis preferred the shade of a fig tree on the opposite shore.  She swallowed down and then belched out the waters of the channel three times a day, creating a deadly whirlpool that destroyed ships that passed her way.

Homer, in recounting Odysseus’ wanderings between his victory in the Trojan War and his return to Ithaca to regain his Kingship, describes his dilemma when he approaches the Straits.  He knows death awaits, but Scylla is quiet, so he chooses to spare his ship and steers away from the whirlpool.  But Scylla darts out and catches six of his men, one in each of her heads, for a midday meal.  Much screaming ensues.  Later, after his surviving men have angered the Gods, the ship is drawn into the whirlpool, and only Odysseus survives by clinging to a tree until the improvised raft that she swallowed floated to the surface again after many hours.

The myth of Scylla and Charybdis are sometimes colloquialized into “between a rock and a hard place” and that is exactly where Obamacare, and Mr. Obama, are right now.  He’s not going to get any help whatsoever from the GOP (I will spare you any comparison between Ted Cruz and Scylla beyond noting that he only seems to have six heads) the public is dubious and getting more so now with the media amplifying the Republicans complaints, and his tech people have failed. The good ship Obamacare threatens not only to go down in the whirlpool but a lot of Democrats may end up being swallowed in 2014, and they will not get eaten without some screaming.

And, therein lies the dilemma for Mr. Obama. Yes, the Republicans sabotaged Obamacare, and the contractors screwed up.  But in our system, while the President doesn’t have to be James Bond or even Robert Redford, he does have to be competent, and sometimes, heroically so.  History will not care about North Dakota, it will not remember what talking heads said on Fox News, or the 42 (or is it 43?) repeals of Obamacare by the House.  The Republican obstructionism and even the shutdowns (past and present) will be footnotes to a larger story.  The buck stops at the President’s door. 

Obamacare belongs to Obama.

Fix it, Mr. President.  Show us you are the kind of guy who knows what needs to be done.

Michael Liss (MM)

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